CHRISTMAS is an unashamedly adolescent romp, hilariously debunking traditions sacred and secular, clearing the clutter for Christ. Citing 42 books with 128 footnotes, Nick Page nevertheless gives wide-ranging scholarship a light touch.
He imagines a fourth spirit in Dickens’s fashion-setting Christmas Carol: the-ghost-of-Christmas-that-never-was, disabusing Scrooge that so-called time-honoured traditions are neither ancient nor honourable.
Page informs us that turkeys are called indias in Turkey, and perus in India. He damns The Ladybird Book of Christmas Customs as “one of the most misinformed, misguided and possibly morally dangerous books ever written”, misconstruing mere coincidence for connection.
Bemused by the typical Anglican trait of “inventing brand new ancient traditions”, he targets dodgy Christmas hymnody: “there are few carols which fill me with more anger than Away in a manger.” Wesley’s “Risen with healing in his wings” “makes Jesus sound like a chicken with a medical degree”.
Quoting significant historical sources, Page proves that Christmas often predates the very pagan practices which critics claim it replaced. Seventeenth-century Puritans, egged on by Scottish McPuritans, questioned the festival’s historicity, banning Christmas services for perversely being too Catholic and too pagan.
Page’s delightfully titled “Puritan Department of Own Goals” (shortly to be re-established in Lambeth) feverishly whips up spurious pagan connections: “O blessed Reformation — the church doors all shut and the tavern doors all open.”
I adored the (unsurprisingly celibate) Brotherhood of Blackheads. Fifteenth-century German merchants, they established the Christmas-tree tradition by carrying a tree decorated with roses into the market square, dancing around it, and then setting fire to it.
But Bishop Richard Swinfield of Hereford is my party prelate of choice. His 41 guests on Christmas Day 1289 downed three massive meals, and an incredible 44 gallons of wine, re-enacting the wedding at Cana in their yuletide charades.
The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an hon. assistant bishop in York diocese.
Christmas: Tradition, truth and total baubles
Hodder & Stoughton £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99